From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

February 26, 2006*: It's just too OH!

Surely, we live in heady times. That's true not only when it comes to the internet, but certainly true of the internet as well. Hardly a day goes by without our being informed about some new innovation, some continual proof of Moore's law, some ever newer device that promises to make our lives easier and more integrated, some new internet tool that convinces us that we can move more and more aspects of our lives to the net. Hype is, unavoidably, a central part of all this, if for no other reason than that it's hype that fuels the internet start-up economy. But if we succeed in looking beyond the hype it's still easy to get the impression that something is happening - that significant changes are taking place in the way we relate to the internet.

Admittedly, I'm (sort of) a freak for new online tools, so perhaps I'm not the right person to trust on this. Still, when there are so many toolbars filling up my screen, reducing the main information window of my browser to only about 50% the screen, it's a good guess that something is going on here. Either things are simply getting out of hand, or perhaps there really are a lot of interesting developments taking place on the web. And if the latter is the case, I certainly don't want to be left behind. Numerous previous columns, however, have examined many of these various tools and the ways in which they affect our online habits. There's little reason to review these again. This time I'm interested less in the tools themselves than in the atmosphere of expectation that arises from them. It's almost an atmosphere of a paradigm shift. We're being told that this new generation of tools is changing the way we relate to the web; that we're witnessing a new, improved, version of the web. This new version is so significantly different that it can't be understood as a gradual improvement, but as something truly different. It's thus not surprising that its buzzword is one taken from software upgrades: Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 as a slogan around which people can bandwagon has already been around for a couple of years. It was the second annual Web 2.0 conference that was held in October, 2005, not the first. Tim O'Reilly, in a lengthy September, 2005 article contrasts the defining characteristics of Web 2.0 as opposed to their counterparts in what by default gets called Web 1.0. What makes this new, improved version so significantly different from its predecessor? O'Reilly points to a number of characteristics, but even he, a Web 2.0 evangelist to the core, has a difficult time giving a precise definition of what Web 2.0 is, and instead has to settle for a core group of characteristics, many, though not all, of which can probably be found in Web 2.0 applications.

Perhaps it's an ongoing case of upping the ante. When the web emerged into popular consciousness we were told that one-way book culture was dead. From now on, each of us could be his or her own publisher. That, apparently, didn't happen. If it had happened, it's a good guess that we wouldn't be hearing precisely that now as well. But we are hearing it - with added emphasis. If only a few years ago we thought that the web was helping us achieve the epitome of participatory culture, the new tools that are springing up suggest that we were nowhere near that back then. Certainly, the promises that are made about today's read/write web go well beyond those made for the read only web of ten years ago. There can be little doubt that many of the tools available to someone who wants to post information to the web are easier to use than those of the past, but can we really claim that we're witnessing a qualitative leap? It seems to me that only if we're seriously myopic, or lack long-term memory, can we justifiably make such a claim.

So are the new tools that are emerging simply a realization of a promise that was made over a decade ago, but is only now actually achievable? And why am I writing about this now? A recent study by the people at the Pew Institute tell us that over half of today's teenagers in the United States have uploaded information to the internet - that they are not only internet consumers, but internet content producers as well.

Even someone with an exaggerated measure of doubt and cynicism on matters of this sort has to concede that something really is going on here. That something has to do with identifying the web, and particularly the blogosphere, not only as a source of information, but instead as a platform upon which information is generated and bounced about, held up to the light, considered from numerous angles. Granted, not all the information we encounter on the web is accurate, or useful, or even interesting. But viewing the web as little more than a source of information (important as that may be) is an inaccurate perception of what the internet is becoming. If not too long ago we went to the web in order to find information. Today, many of us turn to the web not to find information, but to enhance it, to give it context and meaning. If what is being promoted via the Web 2.0 hype goes beyond the basic access to information, toward actually doing something with that information, it's definitely pointing us in an important, and desirable, direction.

Technological developments are inevitable. The internet is constantly changing and developing. If we're in the age of the perpetual beta, perhaps instead of a magnitude change we should expect constant, but only gradual, development. It would seem that there's really no justification in making a claim about an upgrade that gets a name like Web 2.0. And yet paradoxically, there is. Precisely because the internet has been so fully integrated into our lives, has become part of almost everybody's everyday experience (have we already mentioned 50 million MySpace users?), has become something that we almost take for granted, it seems to me that we're in danger of losing our sense of wonder toward it. I have my doubts about the extent to which most users will make use of the tools that the Web 2.0 proselytizers are promoting. Most users will probably never even hear about them, let alone use them - even though these tools could point toward new directions in accessing, accumulating, and using information, could invite them to uncharted territories in our individual and collective thinking. Precisely because such a powerful tool is confronted with the clear and present danger of being banalized, of being perceived as just another tool, we need the hype of Web 2.0 to remind us of what still might be.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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